Steele dossier source acquitted, with loss for special counsel Durham

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A jury on On Tuesday, Igor Danchenko — a private investigator who was a primary source in a 2016 dossier alleging former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia — pleaded not guilty to lying to the FBI about where he got his information.

The verdict in federal court in Alexandria, Va., is another blow to special counsel John Durham, who has now lost both cases dealt with as part of his nearly 3½-year investigation. Durham, who was asked by Attorney General William P. Barr in 2019 to review the FBI’s 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign, is sure to face renewed pressure to finish its work after the verdict.

Trump predicted that Durham would expose the “crime of the century” in the US law enforcement and intelligence agencies investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia. But so far, no one charged by the special counsel has gone to prison, and only one government employee has pleaded guilty to a criminal offense. In both lawsuits this year, Durham argued that people were deceiving FBI agents not investigating corrupt attacks on Trump.

The jury in Danchenko’s case deliberated for about nine hours over two days. Judge Joel Greene said in an interview that there was no restraint in the deliberations and that the decision was “pretty much unanimous.”

“We looked at everything very carefully,” said Greene, who declined to comment on the politics of the case. “The conclusion we reached was the conclusion we were all capable of reaching.”

Durham, a longtime federal prosecutor who was U.S. attorney in Connecticut during the Trump administration, personally argued much of the government’s case against Danchenko. The special counsel claimed that that Danchenko misled FBI officials and questioned his sources in 2017 after the agency determined the researcher was the unnamed person behind some of the most explosive claims about Trump in reports compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.

The trial could be Durham’s last. A grand jury that the special counsel had used in Alexandria is now inactive, people familiar with the case told The Washington Post, although the status of a similar panel in D.C. was not immediately clear. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment when asked whether Durham would continue as special counsel in the wake of the Danchenko acquittal.

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon after the jury announced its verdict, Barr declined to comment. In a statement released by the Department of Justice after the verdict, Durham said: “While we are disappointed with the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service. I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case.”

A representative for Trump could not immediately be reached for comment.

After the verdict was handed down, Danchenko choked up and hugged her defense attorneys, Stuart A. Sears and Danny C. Onorato. Danchenko declined to comment, but Sears said outside the courthouse that “we’ve known all along that Mr. Danchenko is innocent.”

“We’re happy now that the American public knows, too,” he said.

To win a conviction, Durham had to convince jurors both that Danchenko lied and that his deception had a “material” impact on the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Defense attorneys argued that Danchenko believed what he told agents was true and that it was not a crime to give uncertain answers to imprecise questions.

In May, a jury in DC federal court acquitted cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann, who was also accused by the special counsel of lying to the FBI. A former FBI attorney, Kevin Clinesmith, was sentenced to a year of probation after admitting in a 2020 plea deal with Durham that he altered a government email used to justify secret surveillance of a former Trump -campaign adviser, Carter Page.

After his investigation is complete, Durham will be asked to write a report, but It is up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide how much to release to the public.

The indictment listed five counts against Danchenko for statements to FBI investigators about whether his sources included a longtime Democratic public relations chief, Charles Dolan Jr., and Sergei Millian, a former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga dismissed the charge against Dolan before the case went to the jury.

For Durham, the FBI’s handling of the Steele reports has been a key area of ​​investigative interest. Steele was hired to produce the reports by research firm Fusion GPS, which had been retained by a law firm representing Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic National Committee. A website funded by a deep-pocketed Republican donor originally hired Fusion GPS to dig into Trump’s background.

But the FBI began investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia before using the Steele dossier to support the warrant applications covering Page. The Justice Department’s inspector general ruled that the FBI was justified in launching the investigation, which would eventually be taken over by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Mueller did not find collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but a report from his office outlined various connections between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin and characterized the campaign as eager to benefit from Russia’s help in 2016.

In his closing remarks, Durham defended his investigation as apolitical and a “logical” consequence of Mueller’s failure to find that the Trump campaign illegally colluded with Russia.

FBI witnesses testified that some emails and information about Dolan and Millian that Danchenko kept to himself would have been valuable to investigators probing the sources of the dossier’s claims in 2017. An FBI supervisor who led intelligence analysts in Trump investigation in 2016, Brian Auten, and a special agent working in Russian counterintelligence, Kevin Helson, both testified that they might have taken different steps if they had known as much as Danchenko.

But Auten and Helson also described Danchenko as a trusted source of information about Russian influence activities that U.S. investigators have mined for years — testimony that appeared to frustrate Durham, whose questions to the FBI officials then became more aggressive.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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